Old movies: Polish cinema on the big screen

Ashes And Diamonds
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Polish cinema and filmmakers are coming under the spotlight at the KINOTEKA film festival over the next few weeks: and here are some highlights.

This week sees the start of the KINOTEKA Polish Film Festival. Taking place from the 9th March to the 27th April 2023, the 21st edition of the festival – organised by the Polish Cultural Institute, and supported by the Polish Film Institute – offers nearly two months of incredible cinema.

Such highlights include Shreds, a drama revolving around a family who struggle with their grandfather’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis; Fucking Bornholm, a drama about woman coming undone thanks to the years of neglect from her family; and Illusion, part-detective story, part-psychological drama as tensions mount between a couple whose daughter is missing. Plus, the festival’s New Polish Cinema strand features films all directed by women.

But what’s also exciting about the Kinoteka is that they are showing a wide-range of old movies from classic Polish filmmakers. So, to celebrate the festival kicking off this Thursday, here are my picks of vintage movies you can watch on the big screen.

The Secret Garden (1993)
Dir. Agnieszka Holland

A personal favourite of mine because I believe that this film shaped me in many indescribable ways (and not just because John Lynch is absolutely beautiful in this film.) A childhood favourite from filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, The Secret Garden is a lush and captivating story.

Also starring Maggie Smith, and based on a book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the film sees young Mary Lennox whose parents die in an Earthquake in India. She’s sent from the only life she has known to the cold, and menacing Misselthwaite Manor. There, Mary uncovers dark secrets of the home as well as the titular garden. Soon she finds that both the Manor, the people who populate it, and the land could help bloom and blossom again.

A sumptuous fantasy family film that is not afraid to show the darker parts of childhood including grief and anguish, Holland’s work Is a tremendous, groundbreaking movie that is also beautiful to watch.

Screening 18th March at the Barbican Centre

Ashes And Diamonds (1958)
Dir Andrzej Wajda

Striking and unforgettable, Andrzej Wajda’s post-war drama Ashes and Diamonds (the lead picture of this article is taken from it) is often considered one of the great masterpieces of Polish Cinema.

Based on a book by Jerzy Andrzejewski, the film revolves around solider and Polish Resistance fighter Maciek Chelmicki, who, on the last day of World War I is asked to assassinate a Communist official. The request sets off a moral dilemma and a damning chain of events.

The agonies of post-war warfare are laid achingly bare throughout Wajda’s work here. The long lingers of toe-curling death sequences make Ashes And Diamonds a stark and brutal watch. Yet this is no less a vital, albeit, visceral film – a haunting but brilliantly made epic.

Screening 19th March at the Phoenix Cinema

The Devil (1972)
Dir Andrzej Zulawski

This historic horror film is similarly considered one of the defining chapters of Polish Cinema. However, for 16 years it was banned and returned to screens in 1988. Luckily, it will be screening again for those who enjoy a good, gory period romp.

Set during the 1793 Prussian invasion of Poland, The Devil revolves around a Polish nobleman who is saved by a stranger only to be blackmailed into committing gruesome, gory murders across the country.

This movie doesn’t shy away from the Satanic corruption of the soul as well as the stain that bloodshed leaves behind. Gruesome in so many different ways, this is a fiendish horror entry very akin to Vincent Price-led film The Witchfinder General.

Screening 29th March at the Institut Francais. Plus a Live DJ set.

Passion (1982)
Dir Jean-Luc Godard



Featuring a young Isabelle Huppert, the late and great Jean-Luc Godard directed this stunning art film that noted his returned to mainstream filmmaking.

Passion revolves around a Polish director who is interested in creating tableaux vivants – live recreations of classical European paintings. All the while, he becomes embroiled in the struggles of factory worker Isabelle who is fired for union activities.

The film is about the war between art and life, how high art can contrast and conflict with the life of the working class. All the while, Godard’s artistic approach juxtaposes machinery and workload with the art of falling in love.

At times frustration, mostly beautiful, Godard’s Passion dives into the murkiness of art verses artist.

Screening 21st March at Cine Lumiere

The Films of Jerry Skolimowski

Finally, in a collaboration with BFI, Kinoteka will present a month-long retrospective at BFI Southbank called Outsiders and Exiles: The Films of Jerzy Skolimowski. Films in this season include early Polish features like Identification Marks: None (1964) and Hands Up! (1967/1981), both of which will also be released on BFI Blu-ray on 24 April, British-made classics such as Deep End (1970) and The Shout (1978), and later career highlights including Essential Killing (2011) and 11 Minutes (2015).

You can find out more about the festival here.

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